Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, "Changed from Glory into Glory: Windy"

Sermon 5/27/12
Acts 2:1-21

Changed from Glory into Glory: Windy

            Yesterday afternoon I had the joy of attending my nephew Sam’s Fifth Birthday Party. He is getting to be quite grown up. Children’s birthday parties are an interesting mixture of planned and unplanned happenings. For example, my brother and sister-in-law had almost everything set up out on their back deck, expecting to sit and eat with adults while the kids played in the yard and on the swing set. But slowly, person by person, people seemed to decide that sitting inside, in air conditioning, near fans, was preferable to being outside on a beautiful but very hot day. Jim and Jen ordered more than twice as much pizza as the guests ate, although we went through drinks like crazy. The plastic lightsabers that were set out never got played with – kids opted instead for playing with Batman’s batcave, which was just sitting in its usual spot in the living room. And Sam never reacts quite how you think he will to presents you get for him. His parents told him on his birthday that they were going to take him to the store to buy him a “big boy bike.” Sam responded, “No thank you.” He’s since had a change of heart, but his original response was a little disheartening to his parents who had planned for quite a while!  
            Today we celebrate a birthday here, too, and this one is for all of us. Like Sam’s birthday, it was both planned and unplanned, the way things unfolded. In the Christian Church we celebrate Pentecost Day as the birthday of the church universal. Pentecost is the biggest birthday celebration I can think of, next to that birthday we celebrate on December 25th. Today is the birthday of the Church. Today, we read about the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit. Today we read about that strange experience where the sound of a mighty rushing wind broke into the house where the followers of Jesus were celebrating Pentecost. Today, we read about the beginnings of Church as we know it – where Peter steps up and finally does what Jesus had been preparing him and the others to do all along: he shares the gospel – tells the Good News about God’s grace to anyone and everyone he can get to listen. Today is meant to be a day of celebration, this day of Pentecost.
Our text from Acts opens with the disciples already gathered together. They are gathered together for the celebration of Pentecost, a Jewish festival set out in the Torah, the law books for the Jews, which make the first five books of our Bible today. Pentecost was a celebration taking place fifty days after Passover, and was called also “the feast of weeks” or Shavuot. The festival celebrated the “first fruits” of the early harvest in spring. So the disciples were gathered together for this traditional celebration – this is what was planned. Everyone was gathered for a purpose, and had an idea what to expect. But suddenly, the unexpected started happening. We read that a sound like the rush of a violent wind came, and filled the gathering place, and the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, which seemed to them like divided tongues of fire. And they began to speak the gospel message to all who were gathered in such a way that everyone in the city could understand them. Many people from many places were gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, and it seemed that everyone could understand the disciples. Some were amazed at this, but others were a bit cynical, and accused the disciples of being drunk. Peter stands and raises his voice to the crowds: We’re not drunk – we are speaking as the prophets spoke – and he goes on to speak to them of visions and power that will come to all – young and old, men and women, slaves and free.
Today, when we celebrate Pentecost, our focus is on not on the feast originally celebrated, the planned part, but on the out-of-control wind that swept through and stirred up the celebration – the giving of the Holy Spirit. This is the gift that Jesus has promised the disciples they would receive, the thing that would be their Advocate, their Comforter, helping them to make the transition from followers of Jesus to those who would be leading and guiding and sharing with others. The Holy Spirit is the gift that helps them with all their other gifts, in a way. It’s the foundation for their work, the source of their confidence in their abilities. After all, being filled with the Holy Spirit is being filled up with God’s own self, right inside of you. God dwelling in you certainly should inspire you with confidence! On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is the gift that is available to each one of us.
Personally, though, I have always found this Spirit thing a bit hard to explain and understand. It all sounds so ambiguous, doesn’t it? How do we connect to an event that had a violent rushing wind, tongues of fire, and people speaking in other languages? Maybe we get that something special happened on that day, but how can we relate to it? What does the Holy Spirit mean to us?
When I was in 8th grade, I accidentally pinned my leg under our minivan. It’s a long story, and doesn’t make me look very brilliant, but suffice it to say, I was laying on the ground outside a small market in Rome in the parking lot, pinned underneath our Dodge Caravan. My mother was in the store, and when my friend, who was with me, conveyed to her what happened, and my mother came out and saw me under the van, she didn’t look for help. What she did was push the van off me. Now, maybe she could have done this on a normal day, but I suspect that the level of adrenaline coursing through her body in an emergency situation made it suddenly easy for her to get me, her child, out of such a dangerous situation.
            I think the Holy Spirit is a little like that – like adrenaline that suddenly shows up when you need it. Did you ever sing the Sunday School song, Give Me Oil for My Lamp? Give Me Oil for My Lamp, keep it burning, burning, burning, Give me oil for my lamp, I pray! Give me oil for my lamp, keep it burning, burning, burning, keep it burning til the break of day! The song continues in more verse, but some of my favorites were: Give me wax for my board, kepe me surfing for the Lord, and Give me gas for my Ford, keep me truckin’ for the Lord. I mention this song because the verses all suggest that there is something we need, something God can give us, that can inspire us, move us, help us to act with faith and boldness. Give me oil for my lamp is not so different from saying: Come, Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit’s coming in Acts is described as a violent rushing wind. Wind is powerful. It can set a boat to sailing across the water, or it can destroy and damage, or it can be harnessed for electricity. Sometimes we know when to expect a windy day, but often, the wind catches us by surprise. We can’t see the wind, but we can see what it does. Wind is a great image for how Spirit moves through us. But if the Spirit is so unpredictable, can we do more than say, Come, Holy Spirit, and wait for the Spirit to show up, if it will?
            When I think about the apostles receiving the Spirit, I remember that they were in Jerusalem, waiting for the Spirit, because that is where Jesus told them to be. They made sure they followed the instructions they had, so that they could be ready for the unknown. Thinking about my nephew’s birthday party, I think: It would never have done if my brother and sister-in-law refused to let the party take shape as it did. They could have tried to force everyone to stay outside or play with certain toys or eat certain things. But it wouldn’t have been much of a party if they did that, if they tried to refuse to let the wind blow. At the same time, if they hadn’t had all their plans in place, if they didn’t have food ready and games ready and the yard ready, well, that would have meant that they had no foundation ready for a good party, and I can’t imagine people would have been able to have the fun they had.
             Last week, Rev. Lauren Swanson came and talked to us about things we can do to help ourselves in the transition to a new pastor, things we can do to help ourselves look forward, for the congregation to move in the direction it hopes. It’s a way to prepare, to be ready, to create a space in which the Spirit can move. For sure, we cannot map out what will happen here in the next year, five years, ten years. Only God knows that. But we can be ready, create a space, so that when the wind comes – and the wind always comes eventually – we will be ready for the wind not to tear us down, but to help us set sail.
            Yesterday I happened to see on facebook, that fount of wisdom, a post about 12 Signs of Spiritual Awakening. On this Pentecost Sunday, I think they make a good to-do list:

12 Signs of Spiritual Awakening
1. An increased tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen.
2. Frequent attacks of joy, unexplained smiling and random bursts of laughter.
3. Feelings of being closely connected with others and nature.
4. Frequent overwhelming, almost dizzying, episodes of appreciation.
5. A tendency to think and act spontaneously rather than from fears based on past experience
6. An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment.
7. A loss of ability to worry.
8. A loss of desire for conflict.
9. A loss of interest in taking things personally.
10. A loss of appetite for drama and judgment.
11. A loss of interest in judging yourself.
12. Prone to give love without expecting anything in return.
            If we prepare our hearts, when the wind comes, when the Holy Spirit fills us, when the day of Pentecost arrives, God will find us ready. Come, Holy Spirit Come. Amen.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sermon for Ascension Sunday, "Changed from Glory Into Glory: The Road Divides"

Sermon 5/20/12
Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53

Changed from Glory into Glory: The Road Divides

Here is where the road divides
Here is where we realize
The sculpting of our God’s great design
Thru' time you've been a friend to me
But time is now the enemy
I wish we didn't have to say goodbye
But I know the road God chose for me
Is not the road God chose for you
So as we chase the dreams we're after
Pray for me and I'll pray for you
Pray that we will keep the common ground
Won't you pray for me and I'll pray for you
And one day love will bring us back around again
Painted on our tapestry
We see the way it has to be
Weaving thru' the laughter and the tears
But love will be the tie that binds us
To the time we leave behind us
Memories will be our souvenirs
And I know that thru' it all
The hardest part of love is letting go
But there's a greater love that holds us
Pray for me and I'll pray for you
Pray that we will keep the common ground
Won't you pray for me and I'll pray for you
And one day love will bring us back around again
Yes I know that love will bring us back around again.

            Here is where the road divides. These song lyrics, slightly adapted, are from the song “Pray for Me” by Michael W. Smith, and they were what I had in mind when I titled today’s sermon: The Road Divides. This past week we had an Evangelism Committee meeting, and at one point, somebody mentioned that it would be my last meeting with the committee. We talked about whether we could schedule another one before I left, but eventually we realized that was impractical – it wouldn’t be about doing the work of the committee, but just about trying to be together one last time. I think I have, and maybe you have, been pretty successfully avoiding thinking about it being the last of this, and the last of that. The last meeting of this group. The last time I might stop and visit so and so. The last newsletter article to be written. The last worship grid to turn into Lynn and the Worship Committee. But, denial will only work for so long, and we know that pretty soon it will be the last rehearsal, the last bulletin, the last Sunday, at least in this configuration of pastor and congregation. The road divides.
            Today is Ascension Sunday. And it is the day in the midst of the season of Easter, the Fifty Great Days of Easter, nearing the end of that journey between Easter morning and Pentecost, when the baby church receives the holy spirit, when Jesus returns to the heavens with God, and the disciples have to carry on and continue the work with which Jesus has charged them. I was flipping back through my past sermons from Ascension Sundays, and I found that just last year at this time, I was talking to you about my Uncle Bill, who was leaving his church in Boonville to become a District Superintendent. I had just attended his farewell party, and I said to you: “When all was said and done, plaques presented, presents given and received, speeches made, my uncle was invited to say a few words. And in his comments, and in his closing prayer, what he said was this: this church has been a place where my dreams and God's dreams for me have come true because of how you helped that to happen. So please make sure that you also partner with the new pastor to help make his dream and God's dreams come true in the future, in the years ahead as well. Because if this twenty year ministry has been all about me, I’ve been doing something very wrong. This ministry is about building up the kingdom of God. Because I know that for my uncle, the thing that would make him feel the worst would be to hear that Boonville United Methodist just couldn’t continue without him. The worst thing would be watching what he worked so hard to build fall apart. To know that the lessons he tried to teach hadn’t really sunk in after all, that the gifts he shared and cultivated had been in vain.”
            These words that I shared have taken on a new meaning as this year, we unexpectedly find ourselves in the same position. I haven’t been with you 18 years, like he was with Boonville, but I resonate with his prayer – what happens when I leave here is as important to me, maybe more important to me, as what has happened in the last three years. Because the last three years hardly count if you and I don’t continue to live into the dreams God has for us once we are headed down these separate paths. The road is dividing. But the paths are still God’s paths, and I believe they are still heading in the same direction.
            Friends, I do not mean to compare us to Jesus and the twelve! But I can’t help thinking that we can better understand the Ascension when we think about our own situation today, and we can better understand our situation today if we understand the ascension. Our two scripture lessons today, both describing the Ascension, come from one author – passages from the gospel and from Acts both written by Luke, who writes to explain Jesus’ ministry and the infant church that Jesus’ early work births. In our text from Luke, Jesus reminds the disciples that his time with them has been a fulfilling of the law and the prophets and the psalms – Jesus brings into fullness all the promises laid out by God in God’s story with the people. And then, we read, Jesus “opens their minds to understand the scriptures,” a conversation we’d all surely like to have overheard. Then Jesus tells the disciples the task: to proclaim repentance and forgiveness to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem, in Christ’s name. He tells them they have a little bit of time yet before they begin, while they wait to be “clothed with power from on high,” but then they will be ready to begin their work. He blesses them, and then is drawn away to heaven.
Our scene from Acts overlaps somewhat with our passage from Luke, but the focus is the same. Jesus has gathered with the disciples and is speaking to them about the kingdom of God. He tells them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. But still, they have questions. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He tells them not to worry about that, but to concentrate on the coming of the Spirit, and the fact that they will be witnesses of Jesus’ work to the ends of the earth. Then he leaves them to return to God, and they watch him go. Finally, a messenger from God rouses them, asking, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking toward heaven?” urging them to trust that Jesus will still be a part of their lives.
During Lent I shared with you a passage from one of my favorite books, Christopher Moore’s hilarious novel, Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. (1) The book takes a comical look at what Jesus, called Joshua in this book, might have been like as a young child, a teenager, a young adult, coming to terms with his identity as Messiah, all from the perspective of Biff, Joshua’s best friend. There is another scene that is apt for our Ascension discussion today. In the book, once Joshua has begun his ministry, he gets ready to send the twelve out to the towns and villages to preach. Joshua says to them:  “Okay, who wants to be an apostle?” “I do, I do,” said Nathaniel. “What’s an apostle?” “That’s a guy who makes drugs,” I said. “Me, me,” said Nathaniel. “I want to make drugs.” “I’ll try that,” said John. “That’s an apothecary,” said Matthew . . . “Apostle means ‘to send off.’” . . . “That’s right,” said Joshua, “messengers. You’ll be sent off to spread the message that the kingdom has come.” “Isn’t that what we’re doing now?” asked Peter. “No, now you’re disciples, but I want to appoint apostles who will take the Word into the land . . . I will give you power to heal, and power over devils. You’ll be like me, only in a different outfit. You’ll take nothing with you except your clothes. You’ll live only off the charity of those you preach to. You’ll be on your own, like sheep among wolves. People will persecute you and spit on you, and maybe beat you, and if that happens, well, it happens. Shake of the dust and move on. Now, who’s with me?” And there was a roaring silence among the disciples . . . [so] Joshua stood up and just counted them off . . . You’re the apostles. Now get out there and apostilize.” And they all looked at each other. “Spread the good news, the son of man is here! The kingdom is coming. Go! Go! Go!” They got up and sort of milled around . . . Thus were the twelve appointed to their sacred mission.”
Disciples are students. And we are always students of Jesus, certainly. But apostles are ones who are sent by God. And eventually, we have to be brave enough to go where God is sending us. Yes, I am making a physical move, but that isn’t always how God sends us of course. Where is God sending you, spiritually speaking? The disciples, I’m sure, had their doubts and fears and questions about becoming apostles, being sent. But if their fears kept them from becoming apostles, where would we be? If they never felt ready enough to be ones sent, to be the ones to take over the preaching and the teaching, who would hear the good news about the kingdom of God?
There’s always more we can learn, isn’t there? That’s why as a pastor, and probably many of you in your careers, I am required to do a certain amount of continuing education each year. My learning is not just finished because I have a degree to show for my time. But, can I ever learn enough to feel like I know everything I need to know to be a pastor? When I was starting at my first appointment, I had some real moments of panic before my first day. One day I wasn’t a pastor, and the next day, it seemed, I was! I wasn’t ready for this. Sure, I’d been to a lot of school, but what did I know about being a pastor? I couldn’t have responsibility for a whole church! What was I thinking? Was there still time to back out? But I didn’t back out, not because I suddenly found some burst of confidence, and not because I suddenly felt like an expert, and not because I knew I would do everything right. I became a pastor because, from the start, I felt called by God to do so, sent by God to this place in this time. I had to transition from being a student of ministry to being a minister. I had a lot to learn still. We will always have a lot to learn. But if we wait until we learn it all to start teaching others and inviting them to join the journey, we will always be stuck where we are now, never moving forward or growing. And as much as we might like where we are now, if we aren’t growing, we’re dying.
We’re all working at discipleship. And we never have to stop being disciples. We’re always students of the living Christ, seeking to be like him, molding ourselves after his spirit. But we have to start being apostles too. The message has to be delivered. The good news aches to be preached. We are the witnesses. We are the ones sent. We are the apostles. And yes, the road is dividing. But since we carry Christ with us, we’re still going forward together. Amen.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B: "Changed from Glory into Glory: Friends"

Sermon 5/13/12
John 15:9-17

Changed from Glory into Glory: Friends

When I was in high school, I particularly liked a song that was added to the movie version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita, a song called “You Must Love Me,” added for the star of the movie, Madonna, as an additional solo ballad. The song has a double meaning. It features near the end of the movie, when Eva Peron, the first lady of Argentina, is dying of cancer. The song features a series of questions that suggest that Eva is amazed that her husband, President Juan Peron, is standing by her side even though her body is failing. “Why are you at my side? How can I be any use to you now?” she sings. The chorus repeats the mantra, “You must love me,” as words of discovery. “Oh, because you are doing this, staying with me, it means that you must love me.” It is a refrain of wonder, awe that she is so loved by her husband.
            But the song has a double meaning. Eva Peron had a strong desire to be loved by everyone, at least according to some accounts. She wanted the love of the poor, the middle-class, the wealthy, the political leaders, the military, the leaders of other governments, and certainly her husband. She wanted to be loved. And so “You must love me” is also her command. “You have to love me! I insist on it.” Many of her actions are variations on attempts to make sure that everyone adores her.
            Of course, we know, don’t we, that you can’t demand someone love you. Well, you can, but it isn’t very effective. Since we are talking about songs, another favorite of mine is a Bonnie Raitt standard: “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” It is the ultimate unrequited love song. “I can’t make you love me if you don’t. You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.” If you have ever fallen in love with someone, but not had your feelings returned, you know that you can’t simply get someone to love you, at least not romantically, by sheer force of will, right?
            So, can you make someone love? Can someone demand that you love? Command it? Despite our wisdom gleaned from pop music, Jesus seems to think differently. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. You did not choose me but I chose you. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Well, Jesus says he commands us to love one another! And he says that if we are friends, we will do what he commands. Now, I don’t know how your friendships work, but I try to command my friends all the time, and for some reason, they get really cranky about it! But seriously, what are we to make of a commandment to love? The Bible is full of commandments, but Jesus has only a couple that he seems to spend any time on at all. He commands us to love God, and love one another.    
On the one hand, this might seem like an easy out. I think the Old Testament lists 613 commandments for us to follow. Jesus doesn’t ever say these aren’t important commandments, but he does say that we often miss the point of it all, the spirit of it all, which is love. So remembering to love God and neighbor rather than 613 other things seems like a good deal. But on the other hand, to be commanded to love, when we start to think about it, may not be as easy as it sounds. For example, when Jesus commands us to love, I think we sometimes play this mental game with ourselves. Well, I love everybody, but I don’t like everybody. I love you, I just don’t like you very much. That doesn’t sound like very powerful, deep love, does it? Jesus says that great love is love where a friend will give up life for a friend. Would you give up your life for someone you didn’t like? Someone about whom you would say, “Well, I love you, but I don’t like you?” Jesus is talking about something deep, and we tend to want to make his words more shallow, which strips them of all their power. Can you imagine Jesus saying, “I love you, but I don’t like you very much?”
Still, how do we love one another? Because even if “I love you, I just don’t like you” isn’t a very deep love, sometimes, it is just exactly how we feel, isn’t it? So what can we do? How can we follow Jesus' commands? I don’t have a pat answer for that, but I have some ideas. Jesus says he has made know to us everything he knows from God. To me, that means that in Jesus' teaching and example, we have all we need to love like Jesus loves, like Jesus commands. When I look at Jesus, I see first someone who was in relationship with people! That means he spent time with people – quality time, real time, in real conversation with all kinds of people. Jesus spent an enormous amount of time with people who were not like him, with people who did not like him, with people who wanted to kill him actually. Jesus isn’t asking us to love in the abstract, to love from afar. Jesus wants us to love one another, real love, real people. And to love one another, we need to be in relationships.
Jesus acted with compassion rather than judgment. I've talked with you about the word compassion before – one of my favorite Greek words – splanchizomai – literally stomach-in-knots with concern for someone. Remember last Sunday when we talked about the vine and branches, I mentioned how branches don’t prune other branches? You can’t really love someone if you are too busy judging them and thinking about the things they do wrong all the time. Jesus looked at people and certainly could see to their souls, sins and all – but his reaction was to be moved with compassion, not judgment, not judgment disguised as concern, but gut-wrenching compassion. Can you see from your neighbor's point of view? Walk in their shoes? Practice compassion, and open a place for love in your heart.
Jesus commands us to love, and it is both a lifelong challenge, and the very thing we were created for. Rev. Edward Markquart, a pastor whose sermons I love, writes this, “It’s about love, love, love. From the moment you are born until the moment you die; and every second and every minute and every hour and every day and every month and every year and every decade, the purpose of life is God giving you and me the time to learn how to love, as God loves. The purpose of time, of every moment and every day and every year is that God is teaching us what it means to be truly loving people. That’s what it is all about. That is what it has always been about. God commands us to love one another in these ways. It is like God commanding fish to swim. It is like commanding birds to fly. It is like God commanding daffodils to be beautiful. When God commands us to love as God loves, God is simply commanding us to be the kind of people that we were created to be in the first place. We were created in the image of God; we are like God; and God is love.” (1)
Finally, remember that Jesus, who calls us friends, commands us to love not to drive us crazy, or give us an impossible standard to live up to, but to give us exactly what we seek. He says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Complete joy. Have you ever experienced such a thing as complete joy? Think over your life experiences. Think about the times in your life when you have felt the most joy – the most sheer, unblemished, undiluted joy. I’m going to guess that these experiences of joy probably have something to do with experiences of love as well, that our experiences of joy are never just about us, but always have something to do with the relationships in our lives. Jesus speaks to us of commandments, not to burden us, but to free us, because he wants us to have this joy not just in fleeting moments, but in complete, as a regular part of our living. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” So today, let’s be followers of the rules. And of all the rules we’re bound by, of all you can choose to follow, why not choose obedience to the one commandment that promises everything in exchange for your obedience. Let’s love, and be loved, and love and be loved. Amen.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B: Changed from Glory into Glory - Branches

Sermon 5/6/12
(2 Corinthians 3), John 15:1-8, 1 John

Changed from Glory into Glory: Branches

For the next several weeks, we will be focusing on the theme Changed from Glory into Glory. I planned to explain our theme for the month in our May newsletter, but as most of you know, I have been away at General Conference in Tampa for the last two weeks. I just didn’t make it with a newsletter article. I was pretty impressed with myself for even sending Bill my sermon titles for the month! So, I want to spend a little time this morning explaining this theme: changed from glory into glory. It is based on a passage from 2 Corinthians 3. In it, Paul is talking about a text from Exodus that we just studied in our Bible 101 class. The Israelites have been freed from Egypt, but are wandering in the wilderness. Moses keeps visiting with God to receive commandments for living as this new community in a new place. But after so much time one on one with God, his face is radiant, and the holiness of it scares the people, so Moses wears a veil, so that the people don’t have to look at his radiant face.
Paul, speaking to the Corinthians, new followers of Jesus, says that the glory Moses experience had to be veiled – which put a distance between the people and God. But in this new covenant, with life in Christ, with God-made-flesh in Jesus, the veil is lifted, the distance we put between us and God is closed, and instead of seeing a dim glory, covered, we see the radiant glory of a perfect mirror reflection. We are transformed from one glory, a veiled glory though, into another glory, unveiled. Changed from glory into glory. It isn’t that the relationship the people had with God with Moses as mediator was meaningless or valueless. But it was laced with fear of God, with fear of going deeper and experiencing God in more direct ways. When we follow Jesus, the risks are greater, the radiance may be blinding, but there is no veil of separation. Paul calls us to be changed from glory into glory.
Our time together as pastor and congregation is going by faster than I can keep up with. We have just a handful of weeks together really. Of course, it has been on my mind what I can say to you, what I want to and must say to you in this time. In a couple of weeks Rev. Lauren Swanson, pastor at Erwin First United Methodist and Church Consultant, will meet with us after worship to help prepare us for this time of transition, to talk with us about our church family, our relationships, how we live and work together, how we handle conflicts, and how First United can prepare to move forward with mission and vision at the core of all we do. And I have been thinking that we are called to move from glory to glory. Where we are is not bad, but sometimes I think we let our fears get in the way of the deeper relationship God is calling us to. We hover on the brink, wondering if we can follow where Jesus leads. He calls us from glory to glory, and I hope, in these next weeks, to help us be ready to go with him, even if our paths will be somewhat different.
Our scripture lessons today from the gospel of John and the epistle 1 John go hand in hand with each other, and touch on how we relate to one another, and the fear that sometimes gets in our way. In the gospel, Jesus declares, “I am the true vine . . . I am the vine, and you are the branches.” God is the vinegrower. Jesus talks about how the branches – us – can’t have life if they are separated from the vine – himself. And as branches, we’re meant to be the bearers of much fruit – fruit that we’re able to grow because we abide in him as he abides in us. We literally take our life from the vine, and through the vine, we can become fruit-bearing disciples. We are all branches – we can’t have life apart from the vine, and we can’t have life in Christ apart from each other either, because we are connected through the vine.
From the epistle lesson, John picks up the theme of abiding in one another, God and God’s children. John focuses his passage on God’s nature – God is love. We love because God is love and we’re born of this loving God. If we don’t love, we don’t know God. The best love we can know is in God’s loving us, and because we know this love, we ought to love one another. When we do this, even though we can’t see God, John says, we get something better – God lives in us, and God’s love dwells within us. So God is love, John says, in case we missed it, and abiding in love we abide in God because God is – that’s right – love. Not just any love – perfect love – love that is so perfect that there is no fear in this love. And we love because God loves us first. And we can’t love God if we don’t really love our brothers and sisters, John says logically, because we can’t even see God, and we can see our brothers and sisters. How could we more easily love that which we can’t even see? So, if we claim to love God, we know how to show it: in loving others.
You’ll notice that in both passages today, the word “abide” appears repeatedly – six times in the epistle, eight in the gospel. The word ‘abide’ here means literally, as I have shared with you in the past: “to stay or to remain at home.” So when Jesus and John speak of “abiding,” we can think of them as speaking about ‘remaining at home.’ Another repeated word in our epistle lesson is this weighty word “perfect.” As I have shared with some of you, every person ordained an elder in The United Methodist Church is asked the so-called historic questions that have been passed down since John Wesley’s days: “Are you going on to perfection?” and “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” The expected answer to both questions is “yes.” Wesley was known and ridiculed in his day for his belief in the doctrine of Christian Perfection. His peers thought what many of us would think– how can we be perfect, or even bother trying to be perfect? But Wesley insisted they didn’t understand true, scriptural perfection. Answering a hypothetical question about perfection, Wesley wrote, “But whom then do you mean by 'one that is perfect?' We mean one in whom is 'the mind which was in Christ,' and who so 'walketh as Christ also walked;' [one] 'that hath clean hands and a pure heart' . . . To declare this a little more particularly: . . . one who 'walketh in the light as [God] is in the light.”
Wesley’s words about walking in the light as God is in the light are right in tune with our text from 1 John. For Wesley, for John, being made perfect is a process we go through as we learn to let God’s love – God’s very essence – completely take over our lives, so that as God is love, we too are love, made bold by God’s love, casting out fear and being filled with God’s perfect love. The more we love, the more we become like Jesus, the more we are filled with God, and the more we are, in the best sense of the words, being made perfect. “Are you going on to perfection?” and “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” With God’s help, yes.
If we turn back now to our gospel lesson from John, we can read these images of the vine and branches and pruning and good fruit in light of this understanding of perfection. Jesus tells us that we are the branches, and that the branches can’t bear fruit unless they abide in the vine, Jesus himself, and in turn, the vine abides in the branches, and unless the branches are pruned by God, who is the vinegrower. When I hear Jesus talking about being pruned to bear good fruit, abiding in him as he abides in us, I see it as another way of saying that we’re being perfected in love, as John says, as Wesley says. Pruning, as you might know if you are familiar with gardening or landscaping, is a way of removing certain branches and leaves from a plant to make the plant stronger and healthier overall. I have been growing seedlings, some of which my brother Todd did not actually kill during my two-week trip to Tampa in my absence. Before I left, I had to thin the plants, pull some weaker plants up so that the stronger plants had room to grow. Pruning is similar. Sometimes branches that are removed from a plant are diseased or weak, but other times, branches that seem healthy enough have to be removed because the pruning will make for a better, more fruitful plant or tree over the long run. Pruning, then, is a way of perfecting a plant, you might say.
What does that mean for us? How do we get pruned? For me, the most important thing for us to remember here is to remind ourselves who does the pruning, who does the perfecting, in our texts. We’re made perfect by God’s abiding love. We’re pruned by God the vinegrower. We are the branches, and branches don’t prune themselves, or prune other branches. God does that. So often, we look at our neighbors, and feel like we know what branches we’d cut in their gardens, so to speak. We know what decisions they should make, and are ready to call them out for the bad fruit we see. But we’re not the vinegrower, not the gardener of their souls. And what’s more, we’re not meant to do the pruning in our own lives either! And that’s harder control for us to give up. As branches, with God living right within us, abiding in us, we’re meant to be open enough to God’s perfecting love that we can trust God with tending to our lives, pruning where things need to change and be redirected, guiding us on a path which will help us bear good fruit, even if we can’t see the way yet.
John says that we have hope of being made perfect, hope of living a life free of fear. We can be perfect! – if we’re willing to be perfected, pruned. I’ve found that the best things seem to come my way when rather than doing the planning, the leading, the scheduling, instead, I do the following – that’s discipleship after all – when rather than filling my life up with my own plans, I try to remain open enough to be filled up with God instead. If “abiding” means “being at home in,” I have to have enough room in my soul for God to find a place to dwell within me. If I’m already full of my own stuff, already unwilling to let any pruning happen, where will God make a home in my life?
How do we begin to get back into the right place – to let ourselves be branches instead of trying to all be the true vine, or the vinegrower? How do we move towards this perfection that casts out fear? That part is easy. John reminds us that God is love, and that to know God, you must know love. The more we love, the more we know God, who is love, and the more we love, the more we imitate Christ who is love. John leads us in the direction that Jesus was always leading us: Loving one another, those we do see around us, is the only way we can really love God, who we don’t see ‘face to face.’ The more we love, the more room we make in our lives for something other than our own wants and desires, the more we make room for God, the more we understand what being made perfect in love is all about.
So, I ask you the questions that I was asked at my ordination, because they’re really more questions about discipleship than questions about being a pastor: “Are you going on to perfection?” and “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” I hope your answer is yes. Amen.